Thursday, January 15, 2009

The condemned prisoners’ suit

Recently, 27 condemned prisoners at the Kirikiri Maximum Prisons dragged the Federal and Lagos State Governments to the Federal High Court in Lagos, demanding for the commutation of their death sentences to terms of imprisonment.

The convicts, who claim to have been on death row for between 10 and 24 years, are challenging the constitutionality and propriety of their prolonged stay on death row. In separate actions filed by their lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana, the convicts posit that the government has lost the power to execute them, having subjected them to mental and psychological trauma for several years, while they waited in vain for the hangman.

The bid by the condemned prisoners to make the court commute their death sentences to terms of imprisonment on account of their prolonged stay on death row is an interesting and ambitious legal exercise. We sympathise with the condemned men, who have had to live for years on end with the fear of the hangman coming for them at any time.

Their decision to drag the government to court is, undoubtedly, a result of their frustration following years of living in agony under the despicable condition in our prisons. The convicts, who are only a few of the 714 men and 11 women who have been condemned to death in the nation’s 227 prisons, have been victims of unnecessary psychological terrorism as they daily waited for the hangman in their cells.

Their decision to ask the court to commute their death sentences to life imprisonment on account of the delay in executing them, however, appears strange to our laws. The action of the plaintiffs, especially their request for commutation of their death sentences to terms of imprisonment, looks odd.

Having been duly tried and condemned to death, it is unusual for convicts to approach the courts for a review of their sentences, when their cases are not on appeal. Commutation of sentences and even the release of convicted persons is a prerogative of the government, provided for in the 1999 Constitution.
Certain state governors have been using this power of remission and commutation of sentences conferred on them by Section 212 (1) of the Constitution, to grant amnesty to deserving prisoners. Governor Gbenga Daniel, of Ogun State, recently used this authority to grant amnesty to 13 deserving prisoners in Ogun State, to commemorate the New Year celebration.

We therefore advise the condemned prisoners to explore the prerogative of mercy clause in the constitution in the effort to make the concerned governments attend to their cases. Instead of recourse to the courts, they should appeal for mercy, citing their peculiar circumstances which, in our view, amounts to a cruel and unusual punishment.

Having said that, we urge the concerned governments to grant the appeals of these convicts whenever they are made. The prisoners deserve mercy, especially if they have demonstrated remorse, and have been of good behaviour during the years of their incarceration.

It is not good that condemned convicts are subjected to the trauma of living in the shadow of death. This sad situation, which is mainly caused by the reluctance of state governors to sign death warrants of condemned prisoners in their states, should be addressed. The situation presents a puzzle and calls for a review of the desirability of capital punishment in our statute books.

As we have had occasion to remonstrate several times, capital punishment is anachronistic, barbaric and inhuman. It has not been proven to serve the purpose of deterring persons from committing grievous crimes like armed robbery and murder. It is irreversible. It cannot be ameliorated or remedied, in case of further evidence that points at a miscarriage of justice. It also offers no opportunity for a reformation of the convict.
We therefore seize the opportunity of this suit to, once again, call for the removal of capital punishment from our law books. The death penalty should be replaced with long terms of imprisonment while our prisons are overhauled to provide the opportunity for a true reformation of inmates.